A runaway boy with nothing finds everything he needs, including a family, in the most unlikely of placesat a racetrack.
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I've always been small the shortest kid in my class, from kindergarten through the end of my junior year in high school.
I never felt any bigger than five foot three inches tall, 105 pounds.
I guess it's in my genes, because my dad's small too. But he's always been stronger than me. And whenever Dad drinks enough whiskey and beer, he acts bigger and meaner.
He started drinking a lot more after Mom died in a traffic accident. A sheriff 's deputy blew a stop sign and hit her head-on, chasing some beaner who'd jumped behind the wheel of a stolen car because he didn't want to get deported back to stinking Mexico.
"Just two types who'll work for less money than beaners dead folks, and live people with less than a shit's worth of pride," Dad always told me. "That's what keeps salaries here in southwest Texas so low. Those cockroaches will work for next to nothing. And if they ever got exterminated off the face of the earth, folks in these parts would have more, including us."
But after Mom got killed, he wouldn't even say "beaners." He'd just spit on the floor anytime somebody mentioned either them or the cops.
I didn't know who I hated or blamed.
I just wished to God that one bean-eating Mexican bastard had stayed where he belonged. Because when he sneaked across the border into Texas, he took more from me than I could ever put into words.
There are plenty of legal ones in my high school. Some of them are all right and never give me any problems. The trouble is you can't tell a legal from an illegal without an immigration officer or border patrol agent patting them down for their papers.
One time around a lunch table at school, with other kids like me, somebody mentioned how you couldn't tell them apart. Off of the top of my head I said, "If it looks like a beaner and talks like a beaner, it probably farts like one too."
For about five minutes, while kids were laughing their asses off, it was the most popular I'd ever been.
I told that same joke to Dad.
He loved it and slapped me on the back.
But Mom overheard it, and she gave me a long speech about other people's feelings.
"Think of the times you came home upset because somebody called you 'shrimp' or 'shorty,'" Mom said. "It wasn't a joke to you, because you knew it wasn't one to them."
About two weeks ago, right in the middle of a huge August heat wave, Dad got laid off from work again. This time from a job he'd had for more than a year at a riding stable. That weekend he was glued to the couch watching TV, with a mountain of beer cans growing at his feet. The first day Dad went out to look for a new job, he came home piss drunk, and I got blamed for the house being a total mess and all the dirty dishes in the sink.
"Animals live in filthy pens! Animals! Not human beings!" he hollered, with his eyes going wild, like they belonged to somebody else somebody I'm ashamed to say he'd become more than once before.
It had been five months of living hell since Mom was killed.
There wasn't a second in all that time I didn't feel totally ripped apart. Every bit of my life had nose-dived home, school, friends.
Some small part of me still hoped Dad would step up and be there for me, like Mom used to. But the truth was that he couldn't even take care of himself.
It was mostly on my shoulders.
When I stopped studying last semester, that was all right with Dad because he wasn't sure what grade I was in anymore.
If I didn't go to the supermarket, there was no food in the house.
And if I didn't do the laundry, we walked around like dirty bums.
"I'll get my own job and you can clean!" I screamed back.
But with nearly every out-of-work high school kid hunting for a summer job too, that hadn't happened yet. And now maybe even Dad, who didn't have a high school diploma, was in line behind some of them.
"So now you don't have any respect for me!" he exploded, pulling his belt loose from the loops of his pants. "But you're gonna learn some, little boy."
Dad took that leather belt to me, blabbering about money, bills, and how far he was on the bottom. And he kept calling out Mom's name, "Maria."
I can still hear the crack of it against my skin and feel the welts rising up.
The last time he'd smacked me around and then sobered up, he'd promised never to lay another hand on me.
"Gas, I'm sorry. I swear on your mother's grave may she rest in peace it'll never happen again. Never," he'd said, with more tears in his eyes than mine.
I believed him.
When Dad passed out cold on the couch with that belt in his hand, I thought about sticking my foot as far up his ass as it could go.
But something inside me felt as sorry for him as I did for myself.
Only, I couldn't let him break his word to me again, or have his lies cost Mom a moment of peace.
She didn't deserve that, and neither did I.
So I emptied out what was left in Dad's wallet.
Then I packed a knapsack and split.
I wasn't about to call the sheriff and have his deputies ride me anywhere in one of those damn squad cars. I hit the side of the highway, walking with my thumb up to hitch a ride.
"Sure you're not a runaway?" asked an older lady with silver blue hair who took me east. "I don't need any trouble with the law over doing a good deed."
"I just look extra young for my age, ma'am," I answered, showing her the ID I'd doctored to make myself old enough to get a tattoo of a cross with Mom's name on it.
"Gas-ton Gi-am-ban-co Jr.," she read, one syllable at a time. "My, that's quite a mouthful."
"Most everybody I know calls me Gas," I said.
"Well, Gas, you know exactly where you're headin' to, or you gonna find out the closer you get?" she asked.
I hadn't thought about anything like that. I just wanted to get as far away as I could from everybody and everything around me.
I probably wanted to get as far away as that beaner did after the deputy plowed into Mom's car. And if I ever could get there, I'd even things up with that Mexican bastard for sure.
But I didn't have an answer for that lady.
So I shrugged my shoulders to her question. And when I did, I felt the sting across my back where Dad had whipped me.
Two hours later I caught a second ride farther east, from a family in an SUV with two clear-skinned kids around my age. They were coming back from a Bible meeting, and I even had to mouth a chorus of hymn music when the rest of them joined in with the radio.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
"You must be so excited to start college a year early," said the girl, twirling a finger through her curly brown hair. "But having some pickpocket steal your bus ticket. I can't imagine."
"It's sad, but there are all kinds in this world," said the mother.
"All kinds," I echoed, shaking my head.
"Won't your aunt be worried when she meets the bus and you're not on it?" asked the father as his eyes met mine in the rearview mirror.
"Somebody who's getting off at my stop is going to let her know," I answered.
Over the past few months I'd got real good at lying, explaining the reasons for all my bumps and bruises to people.
Slipping down stairs.
Crashing my bike.
Horseback riding accident.
I had a head full of them now, and they popped out of my mouth anytime I needed one.
"Well, we're happy to take you as far as Tyler. That's where we start heading in another direction," the father said.
"That's great," I told him from the extra row of seats in the back they'd pulled down for me. "I can't wait to catch up with my aunt again and settle in over the next couple of weeks before classes start in September."
Half the time I was riding with them, I was watching the oncoming headlights in the opposite lane. I kept waiting for one of those big Mack trucks to come screeching across the double line and rip right through us.
And if that happened, I knew in my heart I'd be the only one to walk away. I'd keep heading right on down that highway with every part of me on fire.
The stars had opened their eyes wide by then, and that family dropped me off at a rest stop that had a service station and a bunch of all-night fast-food places.
The son got out of the car with me, clutching his Bible.
"Losing both of your parents in the same year, and still graduating before your class. You've been blessed with great strength, Gas," he said, tapping the book. "I'll pray for you."
He was nearly a foot taller than me, and the glow from the fluorescent lights looked like a halo over his head.
"Thanks," I said, staring straight into his chest. "But I don't deserve it."
Then I walked away, with the biggest part of me wishing I really were an orphan.
A sign read, WELCOME TO TYLER, THE ROSE CAPITAL OF AMERICA.
Only, the night air around me smelled of nothing but sweat and car exhaust fumes.
I went into a Burger King and filled my belly with a Double Whopper. I even took one of those cardboard crowns they give away, remembering when I was a little kid how Mom used to pretend with me that our apartment building was a castle.
But there was no use in pretending anymore.
When I finished eating, I parked myself outside on a curb, counting every pockmark on the face of the full moon.
A flatbed truck stacked high with cages of live chickens rolled past me. The air brakes let out a pssst as it settled to a stop maybe fifty yards from where I was.
I watched the driver go around back, pulling down cages from the center row.
That's when four shadows hopped off, disappearing into the service station's bathroom.
I had no idea on the walk over what I was going to say to that driver. But I was moving slow, trying to give my brain time to think.
He was leaning against the side of a big tire, smoking a cigarette.
Before I said a word, I heard those shadows jump back onto the truck, with the chickens making noise over it.
"I'm headed north, kid," the driver said, looking at my knapsack. "But this ain't a charity. It'll cost ya."
I fanned out twelve bucks for him to see, knowing I still had some singles and change stuffed down into another pocket.
"You're a small enough package," he said, snatching a pair of five spots. "That'll do."
I thought I'd be riding in the cab with him. But he took me around back and boosted me up onto the flatbed.
"Company's coming, amigos," he called out softly.
I started down a dark three-foot-wide alleyway with feathers and chicken scratch at my feet.
A flashlight shone into my eyes and I squinted to see.
I heard a voice say something low in Spanish, and my insides froze up.
I turned around quick at the sound of the driver putting those cages back into place, barricading me in. And I could see my shadow stretching tall on the floor in front of me.
"Un chico pequeño."
Then the flashlight went dead.
I heard the driver's door slam shut and felt the horsepower in that engine rev high.
The truck jolted forward and I nearly fell over.
I locked my fingers around the bars of a cage to keep my balance, when a chicken pecked at them so hard I had to let go.
All I could figure was that I was locked in with a bunch of border-jumping beaners. My legs folded up beneath me and I sank to the floor, with every bit of blood in my veins running cold.
I didn't know who they were or anything about them. I didn't know if they were factory workers, fruit pickers, or criminals. Or if any of them were related to that miserable beaner who'd got Mom killed.
They were just shadows in the darkness. But something inside me wanted to tear them all to pieces. So I pulled off my sweatshirt, down to a white T with the sleeves cut off, showing the tattoo on my right bicep and flexing whatever muscles I had. Copyright © 2009 by Paul Volponi
The steady rumbling of the road must have hypnotized me, because I remember opening my eyes with the sun already up.
My legs and rear end had gone almost completely numb. And as I shifted around in that cramped space and the blood started circulating again, a feeling came back into them like I was sitting on needles and pins.
It was the first time I could really see those beaners, and just one of them was awake.
He looked a few years older than me, and he was staring straight at the tattoo on my arm.
"Mi madre se llama María," he said, kissing the fingers on his right hand and then touching them to his heart.
I had to go inside my brain, slowing down what he'd said and pulling each word apart. But before I got it translated, he said in broken English, "Me mother name María."
That hit me hard, and I had to fight back a flood of tears.
I guess he noticed, because he backed off and didn't say another word to me. I hated that beaner's sympathy, and I hated him for having a mother with the same name as mine.
After that I didn't want to look at him, and I just stared at those rows of stupid chickens. They were probably on their way to some butcher or slaughterhouse and didn't even know what was coming.
Two more of those beaners woke up and saw the tattoo. And after one of them said my mother's name, that first beaner stopped him cold with a whirlwind of Spanish too fast for me to follow.
That's when I hustled to get my sweatshirt back on.
Only, by then the stench of chicken shit was all over it.
And that smell was probably all over me, too.
Mom always smelled like roses. I don't think it was her perfume, or even the time she spent working at her job in a hothouse raising flowers. It was probably something natural.
"It's only the size of somebody's heart that matters," she'd say whenever I was dragging over being the smallest kid in school. "Look at your father. He's small too. But he's got a big heart."
Dad never laid a hand on Mom or me while she was still alive. But he could lose his temper in a heartbeat, and he'd punched plenty of holes in the plasterboard walls of our apartment when he was sober. He'd been through lots of jobs, like working construction, landscaping, house painting, and roofing. Everything would be going great for maybe six or seven months, and then something would always happen.
He'd get into a fight with his boss or a customer and get himself fired.
Once the sheriff showed up at our front door warning him not to come within five hundred feet of his ex-boss. And every time Dad got canned, he'd have that same excuse ready: "It's easier for them to hire some beaner who'll work for half of what I was making and keep his mouth shut about getting screwed out of overtime, too."
In between jobs one time, when it was just Mom working, Dad was half drunk, sanding the paint off a beat-up kitchen chair.
"Ever feel like you're not good enough, Gas?" he asked as I got home from school. "Like there's a ton of shit out there, and you can't figure out how most of it gets dumped on you?"
Hearing that was like looking into a mirror, and I was too busy staring at myself to answer.
"Your mother's the only one who's ever believed in me. I'd be nothing without her," he said. "But women, they dump little losers like me for somebody better every day. That's the world. That's reality."
"That's not going to happen," I said, feeling like I had to defend her.
"Who knows? Maybe you're right. Her grandparents on both sides are from Spain. They follow tradition there all about family. I don't care if they speak Spanish the same as shit-hole Mexico. They're nothing like them beaners from across the border," he said. "Anyway, you got nothing to worry about. She's your flesh and blood. She can never ditch you."
That was the first time I ever grabbed hold of the idea that he was jealous of my relationship with Mom.
When Dad got that job at the stables, Mom wanted me to learn how to ride. At first I was too scared to get up on a horse. They were so much bigger than me, with a mind of their own.
I guess Mom saw that.
"I haven't done this since I was a little girl," she said, hopping onto a horse that Dad had saddled for me. "Tell me, Gas. You gonna let your old mother show you up?"
That practically shamed me into it.
So I pulled up all my nerve, climbing onto the next one.
Dad walked us both around the riding ring.
I'd hardly ever seen Dad like that before. He was calm and in control, and those two big horses acted like they loved him to death. He'd nicker to them softly chha, chha and they'd just follow him anywhere.
Mom was smiling in the saddle next to me, enjoying every second of it. And after my heart stopped racing, I did too.
I looked down from on top of that horse at everything around me, and it was the tallest I'd ever been in my life.
The flatbed hit a bump, and my eyes landed back on that first beaner. That's when he looked right at me to talk.
"Nacho," I thought I heard him say, tapping his chest.
And I nearly laughed in his face at that.
"Mis hermanos Anibal y Rafael," he said, pointing to the other two. "Me brothers."
I just nodded my head with the vibrations of the truck and never even thought about telling him my name.
The fourth beaner traveling with those brothers was much older. At first I figured he was their father or uncle. But they never looked at him once like he meant anything to them.
That last beaner was twice as filthy as the other three, with a scruffy beard that the flies from the chickens were nesting in. And when he finally woke up, he started drinking from a small bottle of brown whiskey.
"To Amereeeca 'n' da money!" he hollered, raising his bottle.
Then he started laughing out of control, slapping Nacho's chest for him to celebrate too.
Neither Nacho or his brothers looked happy about it.
I couldn't tell if that beaner was drunk or just plain crazy.
"Los caballos americanos!" he shouted at the top of his lungs. "Y los caballerizos mexicanos!"
Except for the "American" and "Mexican" parts, I had no idea what that gibberish meant.
The next time he went to slap at Nacho, the three of them grabbed him hard. The bottle went flying up into the air, bouncing off the top of the truck's cab.
I heard it shatter onto the highway, and the truck driver blasted his horn.
The chickens flew into a frenzy, clucking and pecking at one another.
That lunatic beaner was buried at the bottom of the pile now, with them all cursing in Spanish. And I was worried that one of them might pull out a box cutter or a switchblade.
The driver got off the highway at the next exit, rolling down an incline and stopping at the first light on the service road.
He came around back and pulled down the middle row of cages, waving a Louisville Slugger.
"Let's go, you damn Mexicans!" he screamed, like he'd smash their heads to squash. "We're close enough! Find your own way from here! Out! Out!"
He didn't need to speak any Spanish because that baseball bat was doing all the talking.
I pressed my back up against the cages as they filed past me, jumping off the truck.
"You too! You're no better than them!" the driver yelled at me.
Hearing that was nearly the same as getting smacked in the mouth with that bat.
I wanted to tell that driver how I was just like him and should have been riding up front in the cab all along. I wanted to beg him to leave me off anywhere else in the world except next to those beaners.
But he was as angry as Dad at his worst, without even drinking. And I didn't want to risk hearing what else he might say.
He drove off, leaving us stranded on the corner of Lost and Nowhere, sandwiched between the highway overpass, a fenced-off soccer field, and a little park with picnic tables at the very beginning of some neighborhood of identical single-family houses.
Those stupid beaners stood there arguing with one another.
The spit was flying everywhere, until the one who'd been drinking raised his middle finger to the rest of them and me.
"Putos grandes!" he sneered, bringing his hands apart wide.
Then he left. I watched him stagger away, crisscrossing the solid yellow lines in the street back toward the overpass.
Right then I couldn't have cared less if some sheriff's deputy came speeding from the opposite direction with his lights flashing and siren blasting, flattening his ass into Mexican roadkill.
The sun was blazing hot, so I headed for a tree and some shade inside that park.
Nacho and his brothers were busy at a corner pay phone, before they came over to where I was.
"Change, por favor?" Anibal asked, with the others nudging him forward. "Please, señor. Change?"
Those beaners didn't even have a dollar bill to trade. They were looking for a handout, and that pissed me off beyond belief.
I dug deep into my front pocket, then flung a fistful of dimes and nickels at them.
"Here, fuckos!" I shouted. "Like I'm not broke enough for you!"
Then I watched them pick through the grass and dirt for every last one. And everything Dad had ever said about them taking our jobs and our money echoed inside my head.
I was trying to make a plan for myself when Nacho came running back, with his brothers still on the phone.
"Dónde? Where is here?" he asked, out of breath.
That's when it hit me for real that I had no idea where I was.
So I just stared at him cold and blank, without even blinking.
Rafael went up to a car at a red light and must have got the answer, because he sprinted back to Anibal, who was holding the phone, telling him something.
For the next three or four hours I sat underneath that tree drawing in the dirt with a stick, wondering if Dad knew I was gone yet, or if he even cared. Nacho and his brothers spent most of that time staring down the service road, like some magic carpet for beaners was about to come sailing through.
Only, I was wishing it would be the dogcatcher instead.
The cars that drove past mostly had Lone Star State license plates. But I was seeing more and more cars with Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana tags too. So I figured I was close to the northeastern tip of Texas, where all those states practically met. But it bothered me bad that those beaners probably knew exactly where we were and I didn't.
I wasn't about to ask them or anybody else.
It was closing in on dinnertime and I was still stranded in that park, twenty yards from Nacho and his brothers, like there was an invisible string tied between us.
My stomach was grumbling, so I broke down and bought myself an ice cream sundae and a soda off a white truck with jingling bells. That left me with just three lousy bucks to my name. But I enjoyed every bit of that food in front of those starving beaners, who'd been sucking water from a fountain and eating shriveled figs off a tree.
A few joggers showed up, along with some parents bringing their young kids to the park's playground after work.
Most of them were staring at us.
"For Christ's sake! You all gonna pitch a tent and live here?" barked a man walking a big German shepherd. "This ain't a refugee camp!"
I knew it was a matter of time before somebody called the cops.
Then, just as the sun was sinking low, a rusted horse trailer pulled up to the curb, and those beaners shot up at attention like they'd been drafted into the Mexican army.
The man who got out was tall, and as thin as a whip, leaning off to one side. He had on mirrored sunglasses, with a toothpick rolling around in his mouth, and there was a small alligator over his shirt pocket.
"There's supposed to be four of you!" he yelled. "Four! Can't you fucking count, muchachos?"
Nacho called out to me in a panicked voice, "Come! Trabajo! Work money!"
I didn't know what work those beaners had waiting the kind that was worth crossing the border and riding all this way surrounded by stinking chickens. But it was probably better than what was waiting for me if I had to go crawling back home, or if the cops dragged me there.
Besides, I was going to need money to survive, to put a roof over my head. And just like Dad, I was unemployed.
So I walked over and let that man grill me up and down through those mirrored glasses, like I was a week-old burrito at a 7-Eleven he was thinking about stomaching.
I just stood in front of him with my mouth shut tight.
When he finally nodded his chin, I climbed into the back of that empty horse trailer behind Nacho and his brothers. It was almost pitch-black in there, and I stood up the entire ride, with my eyes peering out between the wooden slats of a window.
I needed to see every sign along the highway and know exactly where I was. Copyright © 2009 by Paul Volponi
Meet the Author
Paul Volponi is a writer, journalist, and teacher living in New York City. From 1992 to 1998, he taught incarcerated adolescents on Rikers Island to read and write, forming the basis of his first young adult novel, Black and White, winner of the 2006 IRA Young Adult Book Award, an ALA Best Book Young Adult, and Quick Pick Award winner. His other young adult novels include, Rooftop (also a BBYA and Quick Pick winner), and Rucker Park Setup. Mr. Volponi holds an MA in American Literature from the City College of New York and a BA in English from Baruch. You can visit him online at www.paulvolponibooks.com.
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I love this novel about overcoming prejudice and connecting to a greater family. A real coming-of-age story for the protagonist Gas, and the behind the scenes atmosphere of the racetrack is a great backdrop.
After losing his mother in a tragic accident, Gaston Giambanco, Jr., known as Gas, decides that best thing he can do is leave his drunken, abusive father and head off on his own. He hops on the back of a chicken truck with a bunch of illegal Mexican workers and takes his chances as he heads north. Growing up in Texas, Gas has been surrounded by illegal workers everyone calls beaners. That didn't seem to matter until his mother was killed in a car accident that involved an illegal behind the wheel. Now, Gas harbors hatred toward them that he can barely hold in check. When he finds himself stuck in the back of a smelly truck with three brothers headed north, he can't believe his rotten luck. Gas and the Mexican brothers are dropped off in the dead of night at a race track in Arkansas. Maybe he has had just a bit of good luck. His father worked at a race track handling horses, and his mother loved to ride and attempted to pass her interest in horses on to Gas. The work is dirty and grueling, especially since Gas is at the bottom of the pecking order at the track. He walks the horses after their workouts and does whatever his boss commands. Much to his surprise, he is given the chance to ride as a jockey. Unfortunately, his mount is a horse known for his viciousness and the ride leads to some painful and disappointing performances. Despite the taunts and even threats from other jockeys, Gas is bound and determined to prove himself. As he pushes to earn himself a name on the race track, he learns other valuable lessons about friendship and family bonds. Author Paul Volponi heads into different territory with HOMESTRETCH. His usual subjects involve inner-city youth and gritty relationships involving gangs and the city. Even though the setting is different in this new novel, he still presents life at its toughest as young Gas deals with the anger of losing his mother, the additional loss of an uncaring father, and the prejudice he feels toward a minority group he thinks he should hate forever.